My Patreon supporters have chosen Arcane Science and Industry as the topic of the month. I’ll be writing a more extensive article on the topic later in the month, but now I want to address questions on a related topic: The role of flight. Before I go any further, I’ll note that you can find more of my thoughts on airships in this article, and that the 3.5 sourcebook Explorer’s Handbook is the primary canonical source. With that said…
Outside of the skycoaches of Sharn, how prevalent are airships in the other nations? Were they used in the last war? Are there nations with growing fleets of them? Do the goblins of Darguun have any?
One of the basic principles of Eberron is that arcane magic is a form of science, and that like any science, it evolves as people unlock its secrets. The idea was always that there should be a sense of evolution. In particular, the Last War drove a number of arcane breakthroughs: warforged, wandslingers, and airships. According to the timeline in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, the first airships went into service for House Lyrandar in 990 YK—less than ten years ago. In addition, Lyrandar airships are the only form of airship currently in mass production and they require a Lyrandar pilot to reliably control the elemental. The point of this is that air travel is a very recent development and it is dominated by House Lyrandar. So at the moment, NATIONS don’t have significant numbers of airships; LYRANDAR has them, and even it doesn’t have very many. Only major cities have the docking towers required by Lyrandar airships; combined with the relatively small fleet, this is why airships haven’t completely overshadowed the lightning rail.
It’s quite possible that the King’s Citadel of Breland has an airship produced in secret and piloted by a Lyrandar excoriate, or that Aundair has been working on an airship that doesn’t require a Lyrandar pilot. But no nation has fleets of airships, definitely not the Darguuls. Likewise, there were a few Lyrandar airships that were designed for military service—the Stormships”—but they played a very small role in the war, appearing only at the very end of it.
So the science behind the airship has been established, and from this point going forward airships will play an increasingly significant role. But for now they are still few in number and rely on House Lyrandar… and House Lyrandar would like to keep it that way. The point is that ongoing developments with airships can be an important plot point of a campaign. IF the Darguuls somehow start producing a fleet of airships, that would be a major mystery—how are they doing it? What do they plan to do with them?—that could be an important plot point.
As the skycoaches of Sharn were mentioned, it’s important to remember that skycoaches are nearly unique to Sharn; they rely on the magical effects of the manifest zone surrounding Sharn, and will crash if they’re taken more than a few miles from the city. You could find skycoaches in other cities in similar manifest zones, but you couldn’t fly a skycoach between those two points.
With all of that said: airships are a new development. Aerial combat is not. Galifar the Dark—the third ruler of the united Galifar—is said to have created the Race of Eight Winds as a way to test various aerial mounts, and the skyblade tournaments of Sharn likewise are a reflection of a traditional of aerial combat. But this is a tradition of mounted combat—not large vessels such as the modern airship. More on that later.
What sort of flying magical items do you see across Khorvaire? Brooms exist as D&D canon, but it seems like different countries would have different sorts of flying apparatuses.
First, let’s review my previous discussion of the broom of flying.
By the rules of Fifth Edition, a broom of flying is an extremely useful item. It’s an uncommon magic item, putting it within the range of Khorvaire’s wide magic. Unlike wings of flying, there’s no time limit on the use of the item, and critically, it doesn’t even require attunement. What’s been suggested is that Aundair used these for elite units and that other nations developed them in smaller quantities—so they aren’t commonplace in civilian life, but they are in the world.
With this in mind, the first question I’d ask is are they brooms? While the core magic item is a broom, I see no logical reason that they should be actual brooms in Eberron; remove the mythology of Earth and there’s no particular reason a broom is associated with flight. So I’d actually call them skystaffs. Keep the same essential shape—a short wooden haft—but remove the bristles, add a seat, and perhaps handles that fold out from the shaft. Essentially, make it a tool clearly designed for its function as opposed to a household item that does something unexpected. I’d then say that while anyone can use one, they require Dexterity checks for tight maneuvers or sustained balance at full speed, unless the rider has proficiency in air vehicles—so anyone CAN use one, but it requires some training to actually use one effectively. As a final element, I’d say that a skystaff is made using soarwood, which is a crucial factor in why there aren’t more of them in service at the moment. The enchantment isn’t that difficult—again, “uncommon” level in terms of its power—but the actual components required to create one are in limited supply, so there aren’t that many around. Having said that, they are most often seen in Aundair, and you’ll certainly see a few in the skies above Fairhaven or darting around Arcanix.
This further reflects the idea that Aundair is the most mystically advanced nation. The aerial cavalry of the Five Nations has relied on hippogriffs for centuries; Aundair’s introduction of the skystaff was an early innovation in the war, and they became more common as the conflict continued. So more on that later, but in my opinion the skystaff was introduced early in the Last War. It predates the airship, but only by a century. The advantages of the skystaff are that it’s very portable. As it doesn’t have to eat or breathe, you can keep a skystaff in a bag of holding indefinitely, making it an excellent tool for covert operatives. But with a top speed of 50 ft, it’s slower than a hippogriff (60 ft) and considerably slower than a pegasus (90 ft).
Another uncommon form of flight is winged boots. In my opinion these predate the skystaff (in Khorvaire) by a few centuries. They were first created in Sharn by artificers experimenting with the property of the manifest zone, and these early models only worked in Sharn. However, by 812 YK an artificer had developed winged boots that could be used beyond the City of Towers. Because the boots are limited to the wearer’s walking speed and can only be used for up to four hours, they are more limited than flying mounts and aren’t widespread. They’re typically found in Breland, as they’re still most often used in Sharn—but all of the spy agencies of Khorvaire make use of them, along with some elite commandos and thieves.
Other magical tools of flight are more exotic. The cloak of the bat and wings of flying are rare items, which means that they CAN be found in the Five Nations but that they’re rare and unusual. A few stories I could see for such items:
- The Narathun flesh-crafters of the Mror Holds have created a form of wings of flying with the symbiont quality—a living creature that bonds to the body of the wearer. They’ve only produced a few so far.
- The Seeker spy organization known as the Raven Corps had an elite unit outfitted with cloaks of the bat when they served Karrnath during the Last War. A person attuned to such a cloak must expend 1 hit die after completing long rest, as the cloak drains a bit of their blood.
- The Church of the Silver Flame has an elite order of templars who wear cloaks of flying that transform into the rainbow wings of a couatl. These are driven by faith as opposed to arcane magic, and only people with great faith in the Flame can attune to them.
- Druidic magic can create wings of flying that use the principles of wild shape. Rather than being cloaks, these are often torcs or necklaces; the wings sprout from the back of the bearer. There’s a Tairnadal ancestor whose revenants employ such tools, and a unit of the Wardens of the Wood—the Gray Owls—who use these tools.
- Thelanis can be the source of any sort of flight magic, from wings of flying to winged boots. Each such item has its own unique story. One pair of Thelanian boots might be birds turned into boots, that still sing when they’re happy; another might be a pair of boots without wings, that allow the bearer to walk on sunbeams or shadows.
- Other forms of flight items could be found that have limitations. House Lyrandar could have cleared a form of wings of flying that harnesses a minor elemental for lift, but that can only be attuned by someone with the Mark of Storm; another cloak might only work in a particular manifest zone, just like the skycoaches of Sharn.
The main point is that these items are rare and unusual but can be found in the Five Nations, and there were a few elite units in the Last War that employed them.
As very rare items, carpets of flying are not commonly found in the Five Nations. When encountered, these may be the product of more advanced civilizations (Aerenal, Argonnessen, the Lords of Dust), or be extraplanar in origin (Syrania, Thelanis).
Keep in mind also that feather tokens are actually common items. Paratroopers weren’t that common for most of the war because hippogriffs can’t carry many people. But Thrane certainly delivered paratroopers by wyvern, and later in the war airships could carry paratroopers with feather tokens.
What sort of air forces did each nation deploy during the Last War?
At the beginning of the war, the standard aerial cavalry of Galifar was the hippogriff rider. There were a few other forces based on local traditions, notably the dragonhawks of Aundair and the wyverns of Thrane, but the hippogriff was the mainstay of aerial combat. Such hippogriffs were primarily used as scouts and skirmishers, and there had never been an effort to field a mass aerial force. Each nation followed different paths during the war.
Aundair had three distinctive elements: dragonhawks, skystaffs, and floating citadels.
- Aundair developed skystaffs at the start of the Last War. While other nations replicated them over the course of the war, Aundair has always had the most significant number of them. The skystaff has the advantage of not being alive, thus removing the complications associated with maintaining a living mount.
- The dragonhawk is the symbol of Aundair. Larger, faster, and more powerful than hippogriffs, the primary limitation of the dragonhawks is their slow rate of reproduction. However, Aundair employed them to great effect during the Last War, and their dragonhawk cavalry played a key role in defending the nation from Thrane’s wyverns.
- Aundair has a few floating towers. The best known of these is Arcanix—though what can easily be forgotten is that Arcanix isn’t ONE floating tower, it’s FOUR. As discussed in this article, the reason you don’t see many of these towers is that the effect is unstable and requires considerable ongoing arcane maintenance—which is easy to do when you stock the citadel with the finest wizards in your nation, as is the case with Arcanix. But the Arcane Congress does have a few other floating towers. While the towers float, they don’t MOVE under their own power; moving them during the Last War required massive teams of dragonhawks.
Breland always had the best hippogriff riders. Due to the Race of Eight Winds and the popularity of skyblades, Breland had the strongest tradition of hippogriff riding and many of the riders in the army of Galifar were Brelish. As such, while Breland’s air force lacked the raw power of Aundair’s dragonhawks and Thrane’s wyverns, its hippogriff forces were known for their daring and their skill. Late in the war, Breland employed a few of House Lyrandar’s stormships.
Cyre was relatively weak in the air. It had a small corps of hippogriff riders, and encouraged House Cannith to work on flying constructs, few of which made it beyond the prototype stage. It largely relied on siege staffs and long rods to deal with enemy fliers.
Karrnath had the weakest air force throughout the war. It relied on its strong evokers to blast enemy fliers, and relied on its dominance on the ground. The Blood of Vol experimented with undead flying units; while dramatic, these were never produced in large numbers. As a result, many of Thrane’s greatest victories involved air superiority, and Korth still bears the scars of Thrane’s aerial bombardment.
Thrane has a strong, versatile air force tied to a number of elements.
- Wyverns are to Thrane as dragonhawks are to Aundair. For tens of thousands of years, the cliffs around Flamekeep have been home to wyverns. The least of these are typical wyverns as presented in the 5E Monster Manual… generally Large in size and incapable of speech. But there is an exceptional strain of wyverns—typically known as elder wyverns, regardless of their age—that are both more intelligent than their cousins and grow to far greater sizes; as presented in the 3.5 Monster Manual, these wyverns can grow to Gargantuan size. While they are on average less intelligent than humans, elder wyverns are capable of speech. The early settlers of Daskara made peace with the elder wyverns and the rulers of Daskara always had wyvern “advisors.” During the Year of Blood and Fire the wyverns were also threatened by the forces of Bel Shalor, and Tira Miron rallied the elders to her cause; the wyvern Ashtarax carried her in her final confrontation with the forces of Bel Shalor. Following Tira’s sacrifice, the wyverns themselves adopted the faith of the Silver Flame; they consider the defense of Flamekeep to be a sacred duty. The wyverns have relatively little concept of the wider Five Nations and don’t care to know; they serve the church because they believe it serves the Voice of the Flame, and they say that Tira continues to guide them. So, Thrane can field lesser wyverns in battle, but it is the gargantuan elders who spread terror. An elder wyvern can can carry a crew into battle, and early in the war Thrane pioneered new techniques of aerial combat; their trademark was the use of vast bags of holding to drop massive rocks and divinely-infused explosives on their enemies. While the great wyverns lack the powers of dragons, some of the elders have such deep faith that they can channel the power of the Silver Flame; a wyvern might strike at enemies with sacred flame, or even greater powers.
- Angels are templars equipped with wings of flying. This version of this rare item is created through a ritual that draws on the faith of the bearer; only the most devout templars can become angels, and typically the item will lose its power when the character attuned to it dies. These wings typically appear to be the rainbow wings of a couatl. Because of these elite templars, Thrane was often believed to have recruited actual angels to fight for them. While Thrane did occasionally deploy celestials formed from the Flame, the majority of its winged warriors were these mortal templars.
Thrane also employed a corps of hippogriff riders. Often a few hippogriffs would be harnessed to the back of a gargantuan wyvern, released to engage any flying enemies that sought to interfere with bombardment.
How common is/was technological powered flight (blimps, dirigibles, or balloons) in Eberron?
None have ever been mentioned in canon that I’m aware of. If I were to introduce some, I’d consider a magical aspect: a dirigible filled with Thelanian clouds, or an alternative form of elemental binding using a harnessed air elemental, which sacrifices speed but doesn’t need a Lyrandar pilot. I might also consider giving dirigibles to the Dhakaani (perhaps created by the Kech Aar’ar, the Keepers of the Air) as another way to show the Dhakanni pursuing a different path than the arcane science of the Five Nations.
How does House Vadalis relate to dragonhawks and wyverns?
House Vadalis is the primary breeder and trainer of hippogriffs. It supplied Galifar with these mounts and continued to breed hippogriffs for all nations during the war. Other creatures are bred and magebred to serve regional markets. For example, the bear is to Breland as the dragonhawk is to Aundair; so in BRELAND, House Vadalis has long worked to build a better bear, with results seen in the magebred bears unleashed on the battlefields of the Five Nations. It is also the case that Vadalis has long worked with creatures that are actually intelligent, as pegasi and the giant owls of Sharn. Such creatures are actually treated as members of the house. They are raised and trained by Vadalis, and Vadalis doesn’t SELL them; it temporarily places them, and the mounts have to agree to the service.
So that’s background: Vadalis has certain beasts and creatures that it supplies to all of the Five Nations, and others that are regional specialties. Vadalis does breed dragonhawks in Aundair, but it is not involved with the wyverns of Thrane—although it does provide Thrane with hippogriffs.
As an interesting side note, the 3.5 sourcebook Five Nations calls out that in the wake of the Eldeen secession, druids in the Reaches have awakened a number of dragonhawks and sent them east, where they may be a fifth column that can disrupt Aundair’s air forces.
What about griffons?
Griffons reflect the challenge of changing systems. In 3.5, the griffon (flight speed 80) was considerably slower than the hippogriff (flight speed 100). In fifth edition that is reversed; the griffon is both stronger AND faster than the hippogriff. With this in mind, I would consider griffons to be used by most nations as an alternative to Aundair’s dragonhawks. However, I would maintain that the griffon is more difficult to control and requires more maintenance—so hippogriffs remain the common aerial mount, with griffons as heavy support.
With the changes in Fifth Edition, how does the Hippogriff fare in the Race of Eight Winds?
Traditionally, the Hippogriff and the Pegasus are the top competitors in the Race of Eight Winds. The Pegasus remains at the top. With the hippogriff’s dramatic reduction in speed in fifth edition, the question is: do you change the lore to match the mechanics, or do you change the mechanics to match the lore? Personally, I’m going to do the latter and say that while wild hippogriffs have a speed of 60 feet, the magebred hippogriffs of House Vadalis have an air speed of 80 feet—call them zephyr hippogriffs. They are no longer FASTER than the Griffon, but the fact of the matter is that the Griffon is still usually more interested in taking down other competitors than in WINNING the Race, so the Hippogriff usually comes out ahead.
What about Aerenal? It’s the source of soarwood—does it use it for flight?
Yes. Aerenal is the source of soarwood, and it’s also significantly more mystically advanced than the Five Nations. I mentioned that Aerenal is a possible source of carpets of flying; those might be woven in part from fibers from the soarwood trees, and there might be massive carpets used as a form of transit. Brooms of flying are more common in Aerenal than even in Aundair. Here again, I’d make them skystaffs rather than BROOMS, but as is typical of Aerenal I wouldn’t see them as uniform in design and mass produced. Instead, I’d imagine them as being sort of like hobby-horses, with fanciful designs; one might have the carved head of a dragon, other the head of an eagle, with similar engraving along the shaft and a seat designed to resemble the creature’s wings. Despite all of that, we’ve never mentioned the Aereni as using airships or elemental binding, and I don’t think they do.
That’s all for now. Feel free to ask questions, but understand that I may not have time to answer them. In other developments, my latest D&D supplement Eberron Confidential is available now on the DM’s Guild, I’m continuing to work with my Patreon supporters to develop my Threshold campaign, and this Friday (November 20th) at 6 PM Pacific time I’ll be playing my new Adventure Zone game with Griffin McElroy, Laser Malena-Webber and Damion Poitier on my Twitch channel! Thanks for your support!